In his first season as the Denver franchise’s head coach, his team was awful.
On second thought, “awful” might not even cover it.
He was working under a general manager who, as a player, twice held aloft the league’s championship trophy and then made the Hall of Fame in his first season of eligibility. The franchise’s standards were high, failures unacceptable, and it wouldn’t have been at all shocking if the GM fired the coach he had selected and hired himself.
Yet the coach was brought back for a second season.
And the general manager, while also taking a lot of heat during the horrible season, isn’t going anywhere, either.
That coach, of course is …
- Jared Bednar, who presided over a horrific 22-56-4 Avalanche season in 2016-17. His GM is Hall of Famer Joe Sakic, whose number hangs from the Pepsi Center rafters and got into the front office after remaining in Denver following his retirement.
- Vance Joseph, who walked the sideline as the Broncos went 5-11 in 2017. His GM is Hall of Famer John Elway, whose name and number are on display in Mile High Stadium’s Ring of Fame and got into the front office after remaining in Denver following is retirement.
I’ve written about Sakic’s decision to bring Bednar back for a second season before, including in this commentary from mid-October: It isn’t just Jared Bednar’s second season. It’s his second chance.
But now I’ve been struck by the similarities — and, yes, the differences — in the Broncos’ and Avalanche situations. Between Bednar and Joseph. And between Sakic and Elway.
Under Bednar, the Avalanche is off to a 20-16-3 start in 2017-18. That’s a half-season turnaround of a magnitude greater than than most thought possible — including me. The reboot, which in most ways started late last season, is working. Most striking is that in his fifth season after being the NHL’s No. 1 overall draft choice in 2013, Nathan MacKinnon has shown signs of being a superstar night in, night out.
Yes, the Avalanche is in last place in the Central Division, but also is only one point behind the sixth-place Chicago Blackhawks and three points out of a Western Conference playoff spot going into the Thursday night home game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
And, yes, the other part of the context is that after considerable angst, indecision and even floating possible courses of action, Elway decided to give Joseph a second chance.
An aside: Elway attended the Nuggets-Suns game Wednesday night, kibitzing with Rocky and sitting near Governor John Hickenlooper and injured Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie. If he had waited a night and gone to the Avalanche game, or penciled in attending another hockey game soon, he could compare notes with Sakic.
My position on this is a general one and consistent. In any sport, barring absolutely extraordinary contemporary circumstances, it’s madness to give a coach only one season. It’s also unfair. Whether that coach is Jared Bednar or Vance Joseph. In this case, firing either after one season also would have required an admission from a Colorado icon that he made a completely boneheaded mistake in his hiring process. Sakic, who was in danger of losing power as the Kroenke ownership considered bringing in another hockey executive and massaging titles, all along had conceded Bednar was in a tough situation.
The Broncos’ shortcomings — yes, most notably at quarterback (gee, how come nobody ever talked or wrote about that?) and on the offensive line — were not of Joseph’s creation. It doesn’t absolve him of accountability, but he should get a second season to utilize what he learned from his first experience as a head coach, and that kind of leeway should be implied any time a GM decides to hire a first-time head coach rather than sift through the recycling bin.
If the Broncos don’t get off to a decent start next season, Joseph is gone. If they get out of the gate OK, but then stumble and don’t show marked improvement from 2017 to 2018, Joseph is gone then.
If the Avalanche hadn’t gotten off to a decent start this season, Bednar was gone. Hockey is the most impatient of all sports, and Sakic already had defied convention by refusing to scapegoat Bednar and deflect some of the criticism directed at the GM.
But now, it looks as if Sakic made the right move by displaying patience. The Avalanche is on course for what would be an 8-8 or 9-7 NFL season, and more important than the record, there is considerable hope for the future.
It’s about progress and a coach’s chance to be part of it — and help lead it.
I asked Bednar after a practice Wednesday if he identifies with what played out down the street at Dove Valley. His answer didn’t allude to Joseph, but more generally his own situation.
“Yeah, I do,” Bednar said. “Last season did not go well for us, as an organization. It was a tough year to coach, it was a tough year to play. There were lots of struggles throughout the year. I think we took some things out of last year that are helping us this year. There’s a hunger to our players, we injected some youth and energy, and those guys are really stepping up, our young guys. They’re impact players for our team. The draft was exciting.
“It’s all trying to move the organization in the direction we want to go and be a real strong team every year. Joe and his staff did a great job, I think, this summer, and I’m just happy they brought me back for another year and another opportunity to lead this club and these players. This year, the attitude around our locker room and the work ethic has been great. The leadership has been great.”
Bednar inherited a staff in the wake of Patrick Roy’s sudden resignation in August 2016. Taking over a month before training camp isn’t the horrific situation many portrayed it as being — coaches take over in mid-season all the time and manage to avoid having it all be chaotic — but it wasn’t ideal, either.
After that season, the Avalanche parted ways with assistants Dave Farrish and Tim Army, and brought in Ray Bennett, pictured above with Bednar. Nolan Pratt stayed, but he also had a working relationship with Bednar after they worked together at the AHL level.
That brings me to a major difference.
Bednar had extensive experience as a head coach at the minor-league level, with the Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL and the Peoria Rivermen and the Lake Erie Monsters of the AHL. His teams won championships in both leagues and he came to the Avalanche off a Calder Cup title with the Cleveland-based Monsters. A journeyman minor-leaguer as a player, Bednar stayed in the game and paid his dues.
Although he had no NHL experience at all, either as a player or coach, Bednar didn’t need to learn how to be a head coach.
He already knew how.
Joseph had been an NFL assistant since 2005. I’ve never subscribed to the view that only proven, long-time coordinators make good head coaches. I’m more of the CEO school of head coaching, and that kind of role doesn’t require having years of experience as a coordinator. But for what it’s worth, Joseph’s single season as a defensive coordinator, at Miami in 2016, didn’t go well.
Joseph, who also inherited assistants and didn’t have a completely free hand in the decisions about the hiring of other assistants (e.g., Mike McCoy), will have a made-over staff next season after six departed on Black Monday — surprisingly, including respected offensive backfield coach Eric Studesville, the former interim head coach.
Next season, there will be fewer excuses.
That was the Avalanche position as it stayed with a head coach whose rookie season was an embarrassment for the franchise.
It is working out.
We’ll see if we’re saying the same about the Broncos next fall…and beyond.
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Denver-based journalist Terry Frei writes two commentaries a week about the Avalanche for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including the fact-based novel “Olympic Affair” about Colorado’s Glenn Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion; and “Third Down and a War to Go,” about the 1942 football national champion Wisconsin Badgers and the players’ subsequent World War II heroism. His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries are at terryfrei/oncolorado.
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